Expedition to the Viceroyalty of New Spain: In the footsteps of F. Hernández (1787-1803)

To establish a Garden and a Chair in Botany in Mexico to enable the work begun by Francisco Hernández, who travelled to New Spain in the 16th century, to be continued.

The Botanical Expedition to the Viceroyalty of New Spain arose as a result of a coincidence of events, as was logical in the social and political atmosphere created by the enlightenment in Spain.  Juan Bautista Muñoz, cosmographer of the Indies, was charged with reorganising the collections of the expelled Jesuits, and while working in the library of the Imperial College of Madrid, found some of the manuscripts produced by Francisco Hernández, Philip II's doctor, who travelled to New Spain to study its natural products in 1570. The news of the find was communicated to José de Gálvez, Minister for the Indies and former Inspector of New Spain.  Consequently, the updating and publication of the manuscript was entrusted to Casimiro Gómez Ortega, first professor at the Real Jardín, by Letters Patent issued on 20th March 1787.

At the same time, Martín Sessé, an Aragonese doctor living in Mexico, who had travelled through the Spanish territories of Central America, wrote to the first professor at the Real Jardín proposing that a "Botanical Expedition" be conducted, with a view to cataloguing the natural resources of the Viceroyalty of New Spain and institutionalising modern medical teaching in the colonial territory. Martín Sessé had been a commissioner of the Real Jardín since May 1785.

C. Gómez Ortega charged his Mexican correspondents, J. Alzate, M. Sessé and J.I. Bartolache, with the task of searching for the iconography and manuscripts of F. Hernández in the colonial territory, but they were unsuccessful. However, instead, the work begun Philip II's doctor was completed with the information provided by the new expedition, led by Martín Sessé.

The Letters Patent creating the Botanical Expedition to New Spain were issued on 20th March 1787, and C. Gómez Ortega selected the members that were to comprise the expedition: Vicente Cervantes, one of his disciples, was appointed professor of Botany in Mexico; Juan del Castillo, commissioner of the Real Jardín since 1785 in Puerto Rico, was given the post of appointed botanist; José Longinos Martínez, fellow disciple of V. Cervantes at the Real Jardín de Madrid, that of appointed naturalist, and Jaime Senseve, a pharmacist, who was absent-minded but influential, was made appointed professor of pharmacy.

The expedition began producing results straight away. On 27 March 1788, M. Sessé reported to C. Gómez Ortega the opening of the Mexico Botanic Garden, and shortly after, he would discuss the new plans for the botanic garden and the preparations for his explorations. However, things were not all to go as the Court would have wished. From the outset the expedition was marred by the personal clashes between its members and between the expedition and the leading figures of the Viceroyalty's Administration. This is not surprising given that the explorers received the appointment of "Examinadores del Protomedicato", which was an essential office if they were to be able to tackle the much desired reform of the colonial health-care system, but which, at the same time, caused the indignation of the head of the viceroyalty's medical system, who saw it as interference. This dispute was also to extend to the Creole elite, although for other reasons.

Martín Sessé's notes date the start of the expedition as being 1st October 1787; during the first year, until the time J. Longinos joined the expedition, they made short journeys into the countryside. M. Sessé and J. Senseve botanised in the Desierto de los Leones, while V. Cervantes finalised his preparations to start teaching at the Mexican Botanic Garden. The first Botany course in Mexico began on 2 May 1788 and lasted for six months. While the theory classes were underway, J. Longinos, M. Sessé and J. Senseve visited the state of Morelos. On their return to Mexico City, the expedition was joined by Juan del Castillo, from Puerto Rico, and two draughtsmen: Vicente de la Cerda and Atanasio Echeverría, who had trained at the Real Academia de San Carlos de México. To the contingent from New Spain were also added the students trained by V. Cervantes. In the second course, which began on 14 May 1798, José Mariano Mociño, influenced by the Presbyterian traditionalist J. Alzate, and José Maldonado also signed up. At the same time the explorers began their second journey, visiting Cuernavaca, Tixtla, Chilpanzingo and Acapulco, among other locations.

J.M. Mociño and J. Maldonado joined the expedition in 1790, replacing J. Senseve, who was transferred to the Mexico Botanical Garden to take over taxidermy and preparation of animals. J. Senseve tried, by all the means available to him, to prevent J.M. Mociño and J. Maldonado from joining the expedition. His protectors at the Court acceded to his wishes, but when the order for their dismissal reached New Spain they had already set out on their third reconnaissance journey, this time towards Guadalajara.

This third route sought to reconnoitre the territories in the north east of New Spain. The explorers crossed Michoacán, Sonora and Apatzingan to reach Guadalajara, where the group comprising J.M. Mociño, J. del Castillo and A. Echeverría headed for Aguas Calientes, via Álamos and Tarahumara; M. Sessé was to reach the same destination by crossing Sinaloa. The journey took two years (190-1792). In Aguas Calientes they recieved an order from the crown to travel to the north-east coast to study the Natural History of Mazarredo (Nutka), which was subject to litigation between the governments of Spain and Great Britain over its ownership, given the island's commercial value to both powers. J.M. Mociño, A. Echeverría , J. Maldonado and Juan del Castillo set out for the territory, but Juan del Castillo became ill with scurvy in Aguas Calientes, where he died in 1793.

Following J.M. Mociño's return to México, after the end of their stay on Nutka, the expedition decided to study the south of the viceroyalty; Martín Sessé divided his team into two groups; J.M. Mociño and V. de la Cerda set out for Mixteca and the Tabasco coast, while M. Sessé, J. del Villar and A. Echeverría headed for Jalapa and Guaztuco. The two groups met up in Córdoba to continue on the way to Veracruz. The expedition returned to Mexico City via Tehuantepec and Tabasco.

In March 1794 Martín Sessé asked for permission from the crown to extend the expedition by a further two years. His aim was to reorganise the collections made and conclude the study of Central America with a final exploration of the "Kingdom of Guatemala and the Islands of Cuba, Santo Domingo and Puerto Rico." The expedition split into two groups: while M. Sessé and A. Echeverría studied Havana, where they coincided with the Royal Commission led by Count de Mopox; J.M. Mociño, V. de la Cerda, J. del Villar and J. Longinos, the latter being forced to rejoin the expedition, undertook a study of Guatemala. V. Cervantes remained in Mexico City, taking charge of planting the Botanical Garden at Chapultepec.

After receiving the Royal Order which concluded the expedition's work, under the direction of M. Sessé the task of compiling and preparing the material to be sent back to Spain was begun. This task was to take two years, and all the members of the expedition took part, except J. Longinos, and they were joined by V. Cervantes. During these two years J.M.Mociño worked at the Hospital General de San Andrés and the Real Hospital de Naturales, alongside Luis Montaña, a Creole doctor. Together they studied the medicinal virtues of Mexican plants. This work, which was harshly criticised by the Protomedicato, led to the drawing up of a set of pharmacological notes which would be summarised by V. Cervantes under the title "Ensayo a la Materia Vegetal de México". His work at the Hospital General de San Andrés laid the foundations for the development of modern clinical practice, replacing a humour-based approach to treatment by a Brownist approach (a branch of vitalism), of which they were firm proponents.

In 1803 the expedition was ready to return to Spain, but its difficulties were not yet over. The authorities prevented V. de la Cerda from returning to Spain on the pretext that A. Echeverría, a member of the Mopox Expedition, was in Spain. J.M. Mociño was also prevented from travelling due to family problems. M. Sessé, together with his family, and before travelling J. Senseve set out for Havana to collect his possessions, which had been deposited with M. Espinosa. They were forced to remain in Cuba by yellow fever, finally arriving in Cádiz on 20 October 1803. J.M. Mociño and the part of the group transporting the materials had arrived several months earlier, on 31 July 1803.

The work of M. Sessé and J.M. Mociño in Spain focused more on medical and political aspects than botanical ones. M. Sessé promoted a reform of medical doctrine on the eradication of yellow fever, which broke out in Andalusia in 1804, raising awareness among other Spanish doctors that the cause of the illness lay in the environmental conditions and hygiene and not its supposed transmission. The medical work of the two expedition members earned them a place in the Real Academia de Medicina de Madrid, in 1805.

Martín Sessé died on 4 October 1808. José María Mociño survived him by a few years, although in miserable conditions. After 1811 he was responsible for reviewing the materials from the expedition to New Spain, in collaboration with Pablo de la Llave, a Mexican disciple, who came to hold the post of director of the Real Gabinete de Historia Natural, where he carried out a certain amount of teaching work. In 1812 he had to flee Spain, taking refuge in Montpellier. There he contacted A. De Candolle, to whom he entrusted the manuscripts and drawings of "Flora Mejicana" when he moved to Geneva. José Mariano Mociño returned Barcelona, tired and ill, where he died on 19 May 1820. Vicente Cervantes remained in Mexico City, where despite his being a Spaniard, after independence the government allowed him to keep his post. He died on 26 July 1829.


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